American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose

By Tom Nissley

I think one of the funniest lines in “American Night,” playing at Yale Rep through October 13, is early in the play when Juan Jose is telling his two tutors for the Citizenship quiz how he got to them. “You’ve made amazing progress in the short time we’ve known you,” says a tutor. “The Catholic guy say the same thing to me but I quit him for Presbyterian guy but I could never understand his stoic face then I meet the Scientology guy...but I fail the personality test and now I am here with you guys. I choose you!”

It’s a nod to the different groups who are reaching out to give aid to Hispanic immigrants, for Juan Jose has walked from deep inside Mexico, where he had been a policeman in a corrupt system, to become an American citizen. The tutors (two men in black pants, white shirts, thin black ties) give him a copy of the Book of Mormon, and he has a sudden flashback to the bribes he refused in Mexico and why he left there to escape the drug wars. So funny morphs to not funny, but the grand eloquence of “American Night” is that it is filled to the brim with funny and not funny in the same sequence and gesture and scene, while Juan Jose dreams of the fragments in his mind that make up the questions and flash cards he has to master before the citizenship test tomorrow morning! 

Quickly we get to follow the dream sequence into Lewis and Clark expedition (the play was commissioned and first performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), with their guide Sacachihuahua, and the double-think gains traction as playwright Richard James Montoya has us visit the signing of the treaty of Guadeloupe, and Teddy Roosevelt drops in to shoot a bear, then a KuKluxKlan leader who is secretly bringing his baby to be healed by one of the people he’s trying to abuse, then a school session at Manzanaar where Japanese Americans have been tucked into a concentration camp, then Jackie Robinson struggling to be recognized in “white” baseball, and finally a Union Hall where great epithets are hurled back and forth against all sorts of immigrants and the problems they have solved or caused, ending in a brouhaha dance to the music of “Coming to America.” The scene that follows is more nightmare than dream and is a hilarious boost to the confusion that melds audience and actors nicely. I wish it had been in a movie so that I could watch it again, and again.

So what is this play with music about? First of all, it’s about a young Mexican immigrant who comes across the border to find a new life for his family with dignity and courage. Second, it’s a magnificent ensemble of actors doing a superb presentation. Third, it’s a takeoff on almost every stereotype and tacky ethnic description you’ve ever heard; hence a vivid description of the warts and wrinkles in the American landscape. And finally it’s an invitation to recognize the glories of the multi-culture and the ongoing possibilities of the American dream.

“American Night” is exactly the kind of vehicle that fits perfectly into Yale Rep’s portfolio. It celebrates values and prods us to think and makes a great moment of theatre come alive. See it with gusto.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theater
October 3, 2012


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